To say I was born and raised in New York City would be a little misleading because in my memories of New York in the 40s and 50s, the city was a collection of small towns or villages. I was born in Woodside, a section of the borough of Queens, and the skyscrapers and streets of Manhattan were as remote for me as China would be to my grandchildren today.
Because of our insularity I can’t be sure if a Thanksgiving custom we had back then was unique to Woodside or whether it could have been found elsewhere throughout the great metropolis. Anyone else I’ve mentioned it to has never heard of it including my wife who was born a little bit north of the City in White Plains, the hub of Westchester county.
Anyway, on Thanksgiving morning the children in our neighborhood would dress up as bums or hobos. It didn’t take much since we would usually wear our clothes until they literally fell apart. We would take our most worn and tattered clothing and rip and tear them a little more. Then, we would blacken a cork over a candle and smear it over our faces to simulate dirt. I remember my grandmother giving me a little pouch with a drawstring, or was it a pillowcase, that we hobos could sling over our shoulders.
Then, we were ready to make the rounds of our neighbors to ask, “anything for thanksgiving.” Inevitably, they would answer our plea with some of the bounty from the meal they were preparing. Usually it would be apples, or walnuts, or sometimes a few pennies. Don’t laugh. twenty pennies were enough to buy a Spalding (Spaldeen), the elite of bouncing rubber balls used by us in so many street games.
I don’t know where the “anything for thanksgiving” custom came from. We lived in a small neighborhood that seemed to have been mainly Irish with a mixture of Italians. In my nearby Catholic school the majority of the kids seemed to have Irish names. There were Ryans, Regans, Dunphys, Moylans, and Healys. However, A few blocks down busy 69 Street were the Napolitanos who ran the grocery store. In the other direction lived the dreaded Gallos whose kids were the toughest in the school.
But I’m not sure that “anything for thanksgiving” was an ethnic custom. We were a predominately Catholic neighborhood and the idea of thanksgiving was part of our religious heritage even though none of us knew that the word “Eucharist” meant “Thanksgiving.” On the other hand, it could have been a peculiarly American response to the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Nothing had marked the depression so much as homeless men on bread lines or riding the rails. These were the hobos that we children imitated.
Even though most of us could be considered poor, at least we and our neighbors would be able to sit down that afternoon in our homes to the best meal of the year. We did have a lot to be thankful for. The Depression was over, the men had returned from the terrible war, and the NY Yankees were on the verge of recovering their past glory.
Almost 70 years have passed since those childhood years but I can truly say that my wife and I have much to be thankful for. Our grandparents came to this country from Italy with nothing but their own traditions, customs, and religion. Like most children of immigrants our parent came to love America and worked hard to provide for their children and give them a standard of living that is still the envy of the world.
Today, after one of the most divisive political campaigns in U.S. history, there is more reason to hope than to fear. I would just like to end this post with George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789. Thanksgiving did not become a National holiday until after the terrible Civil War, but Washington’s words are as meaningful today as they were in 1789.
Thanksgiving Proclamation Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.